A common carder bee feeding on Michaelmas daisies. Photograph: Alamy
A common carder feeding on Michaelmas daisies. Photograph: Alamy

 

Have you ever listened to the musical sound a bee makes as it works a flower head? Or looked at a wasp as it chews tiny bits of wood off your fence or garden furniture? Wasps may have a chequered reputation, but they are also incredibly useful. They clear the aphids off my plum trees every year without fail. Alongside flies, beetles, butterflies, moths and of course , they help to make up the 1,500 species of insects that diligently our plants.

The Bees’ Needs campaign this week highlights how much pollinators across the board need our help. As my local bee expert, Sam Cooper from New Quay Honey Farm explained to me: “It’s not just the that’s suffering. There is a crisis in the insect world in general. This is because the wild pockets of land they relied on have gradually through the years been turned over to agriculture.”

So it’s up to us to lend a helping hand. Bees’ Needs Week is calling on everyone from window box gardeners to spacious estate owners to get involved and help replace some of these lost habitats.

A male buff-tailed bumblebee on lavender flowers in a garden. Photograph: Richard Becker/Alamy
A male buff-tailed bumblebee on lavender flowers in a garden. Photograph: Richard Becker/Alamy

If you grow a bit of your own food or have plants, you’re helping a tad already, and there are lots of easy and enjoyable ways to do more to give these essential pollinators the food and shelter they so urgently need.

1. Go wild

I’ve written before about the many benefits of trying a wilder form of gardeningand I can’t recommend it enough. Too often the garden is seen as another room and kept almost clinically clean as a result:

Small tortoiseshell butterflies are common garden visitors, but they are now in decline. Photograph: Alamy
Small tortoiseshell butterflies are common garden visitors, but they are now in decline. Photograph: Alamy

“I went to Sussex recently and I saw someone actually hoovering their garden,” Cooper told me. “They were using something like a leaf blower that went in reverse and they were sucking everything up. It’s no wonder there are no insects in the world if that’s what you’re doing to your garden”.

Yet letting nature in to lend a helping hand rather than trying to fight it out is incredibly rewarding and will save you time, too. Even a small patch of stinging nettles or wild flowers growing undisturbed at the back of the garden can provide a haven (food and breeding ground) for a variety of insects including ladybirds, butterflies and moths.

2. Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees

Red campion, oxeye daisies and buttercups are great for pollinators and look perfect in a wild garden. Photograph: Alamy
Red campion, oxeye daisies and buttercups are great for pollinators and look perfect in a wild garden. Photograph: Alamy

It’s good to try to include a variety of plants that flower at different times throughout the year, but they don’t always need to be plants that are specifically bought in. Wild flowers can be delightful – why not let them move in and add to the variety already in your garden. The Welsh poppies, aquilegias and red campion that have moved in and made my garden their home are now among some of my favourites. They self-seed and pop up where they fancy each year, adding a welcome splash of colour and a food source for pollinators.

Let leeks and brassicas go to seed to attract beneficial insects to your garden. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Let leeks and brassicas go to seed to attract beneficial insects to your garden. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Additionally why not let some of your crops go to seed even if you don’t plan to save from them and see how popular your garden becomes. In particular, brassica and leek flower heads attract a wide range of beneficial insects and truly make a garden come alive.

If you don’t have a lot of space, then some thyme, rosemary or lavender in a window box will lend a helping hand as well as supplying your kitchen with useful herbs.

3. Cut grass less often

Let dandelions move in: they’re a great source of food for bees when other nectar is scarce. Photograph: arron worthy / Alamy/Alamy
Let dandelions move in: they’re a great source of food for bees when other nectar is scarce. Photograph: arron worthy / Alamy/Alamy

I also say let dandelions and daisies move in. They don’t need to take over, but a longer lawn scattered with them is a beautiful sight to behold and the dandelion in particular is a godsend to bees early in the year when other nectar sources are scarce.

4. Try not to disturb insect nests and hibernation spots

Encourage ground beetles by creating hiding places for them around the garden. Photograph: Alamy
Encourage ground beetles by creating hiding places for them around the garden. Photograph: Alamy

If you garden by hand, you’re much more inclined to be aware of the places where insects thrive. You can also actively create areas for them by leaving dead trees where they stand or building wood piles for insects to hide and hibernate in. A compost pile is also an attractive host for bees, and ground beetles will move in readily as long as they have something to safely hide under.

5. Think before using pesticides

Phacelia ( Phacelia tanacetifolia) grown as a green manure in a vegetable garden is also a magnet for bees. Photograph: Alamy
Phacelia ( Phacelia tanacetifolia) grown as a green manure in a vegetable garden is also a magnet for bees. Photograph: Alamy

I’d say a more naturally-minded garden doesn’t need them at all, ever. Please don’t use them – they nuke everything and there are plenty of much kinder options available. Plus, if you attract a wide range of nature’s little helpers into your plot, they can help prevent a build-up of problems in the first place. Also I’d highly recommend a mix and match style of companion planting, rather than growing fruit and vegetables or plants in uniform blocks. It’s more interesting and delicate plants are afforded greater protection as a result.

Of course we shouldn’t forget birds and bats, as they also do their bit and really a pollinator is anything that lands on a plant. As Cooper explains, “Human evolution has conspired that most plants that actively require depend on the larger scale pollinators such as the honey bee, but really any insect can do this.”

 

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